Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Wages of Fear

Y’know how when you’re a kid, you pretend you are a character in one of your favorite movies? For someone in my age bracket, it might have been John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood or someone of that stripe. I always think back to the movies that I loved as a kid when I watch Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. I missed out on some good play-days because I didn’t manage to see it until I was in my thirties. You can’t run around pretending you’re driving a truck full of nitro glycerin when you’re old enough to have a mortgage.

TWOF succeeds for me because it is a great action/adventure film whose little preachy bits are part and parcel of the action. You don’t even realize that the filmmakers have anything to say other than “Let me tell you a great story.”

The plot of TWOF can be encapsulated into one sentence fairly easily – Four men have to transport two truckloads of nitro over a treacherous mountain road. That’s a good movie right there. TWOF is a great movie because of the men in the trucks, and what they represent.

Mario (Yves Montand) is one of several men who loiter around in a small South American village waiting for work. When Jo (Charles Vanel) gets off his plane in town, everyone takes notice. Jo is supposed to be someone important – A gangster, I think – The film never really specifies clearly. It’s not important to the mechanics of the story just what Jo is, only that he is established as someone you don’t mess with. Go back and look again at the scene where he arrives, however. After Jo steps off, Clouzot leaves the camera on the door of the plane…. and a goat follows him off. This is a sly little way of letting us know that Jo is all smoke and mirrors. When Mario suggests that they go for a drink, they take a cab, even though the saloon is only a few yards away. It “looks better” to arrive in a cab. In reality, Jo is broke just like all the others.

One of the main things I love about this film it’s pacing. The scenes in the village are needed to establish a few things: 1) Jos' image as a tough guy, 2) The dilemma of the oil company, which needs the explosive to put out a well fire. And 3) That the oil company is callously sending these men a suicide mission. This stuff is all dealt with in the opening passages, and then the film plunges into its story. There’s not a wasted frame.

An interesting tidbit about TWOF – When it was released in the States, there were about 20 minutes cut out of it. Not violence or sexual content – It was many of the passages relating to the oil company (which represents capitalist America) and its disregard for the men driving the trucks. It was thought that audiences would be turned off by the films’ anti-American message. It is certainly true that the oil company is show in a pretty harsh light. The companys’ representative is a man named Bill O’Brien, and we watch him as he orchestrates the mission. One line stands out – “They don’t have a union, nor any families. If they blow up, there’s no one to come around bothering me.”

At its most basic level, TWOF is about cowardice, about how the supposed big shot Jo crumbles when he is confronted by death. It is also about the veneer of courage that men put up for other men. There is a great scene where the two trucks encounter a road blocked by a massive boulder, and one of them decides that they can blow it up with some of the nitro. As one man carefully prepares the explosive, the camera goes to the faces of each of the four men: Bimba sweating profusely as he works, Luigi chewing his gum feverishly, Mario playing with a book of matches, and Jo drumming on the truck with his fingers. When the bomb goes off, and the trucks are being showered with debris, the camera holds on Jo, paralyzed with terror. The film certainly picks on him, but in reality all four men are scared shitless.

The scenes in the mountain are striking for the way they develop suspense. In addition to the explosive scene, there’s also a marvelous sequence involving a rickety platform that the trucks both have to negotiate. As the scene progresses, we know the cable is going to fail, but the characters don’t. When the platform collapses, it’s in a gorgeous slow-motion shot – almost a bit of visual poetry.

Anybody who ever sees this film remembers the “tobacco scene.” The film takes us with these characters for a while, and we almost forget that the cargo they are carrying is lethal. Clouzot brings us back to reality with a bang – literally. Luigi and Bimba are ahead in the lead truck, and as Jo and Mario talk, Jo starts to roll a cigarette when the tobacco suddenly blows away. We then see a cloud of smoke way ahead, and then hear the sound of the explosion. The lead truck is gone – blown to atoms. It’s a remarkable scene, illustrating just how suddenly death can come to these men.

This leaves only the two – Mario and Jo, and it’s only now that we can really appreciate how much the dynamic between the two men has changed. The Jo who earlier in the film handed a pistol to Luigi and dared him to use it is long, long gone. It’s not unnoticed by Mario, either. Mario abuses Jo both mentally and physically, and the gangster covers under the treatment. Jo is reduced to whimpering, “You couldn’t do this if I wasn’t old!”

The centerpiece of the film comes when the surviving two men come to the point in the road where the other men perished. This is a remarkable visual - There are trees blown down everywhere, and a massive crater mars the road. To top it off, the crater is quickly filling up with oil from a ruptured pipeline. Clouzot takes his time in setting out the task before the men, and the sequence looks like it would have been almost as trying for the actors as the real thing might have been. The outcome seems sadly inevitable, based on the caste system that is now in place between Mario and Jo.

Although some (me, for instance) find the films’ conclusion ham-handedly ironic, I am at a loss to say how else it could have ended. I can’t argue with the result, just the method. This is not a story that can end well. Whether it’s in a explosion in the jungle, in a lake of oil, or somewhere else, these men all end up having to pay the wages.



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